January 7, 2010

France Bans Ads From Major Television Networks

This is a surprising story, which has had precious little coverage in the Anglo-American press. The nominally right-wing government headed by President Sarkozy decided already over a year ago to ban all ads from the major networks, which until January 2009 could receive a maximum of 45% of their funding from advertising. The rest came from taxes, mostly funded by a public yearly fee payed by every television owner. This is a bit like the way our own--yet much smaller and less prominent--Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) works, which runs PBS and NPR. It's funded in part by taxes supplemented by voluntary viewer members and limited advertising. The main difference is that in France, there are no free riders as all television owners are required to pay.

Interestingly, in an age of decreasing media market regulation at least in the U.S., France is increasing it. Starting a year ago, almost immediately after Sarkozy's election, the French have banned ads on the major networks (channels 2, 3, 4, and 5) after 8:00 PM. Since January 2009, these four public stations receive an additional 450 million Euros (divided between them, presumably unequally since some provide news and others do not) to make up the loss of revenue.

The plan was for a full ban on these stations at all hours by 2011 but that has now been scrapped. Evidently, one unforeseen benefit is it's getting people to sleep earlier as their usual programming gets done earlier. Of course, it's only a marginal difference of roughly 30 min per night on average I assume since ads are only between programs in France to begin with. Still, 30 extra minutes of sleep (or reading) is nothing to sneeze at.

The reason for eliminating ads of course is to increase the independence of programming from commercial interests and what the President calls the "tyranny of the audience" that tends to debase the culture via the constant influx of American sitcoms, dramas, and so-called reality shows. Specifically, the measure is intended to provide greater amounts of quality cultural programming as well as journalistic freedom. The major national television networks are hence widely considered to be a means to educate the public and elevate the culture.

Pretty amazing. If you can read French, here's a piece announcing the change from this time last year. And here's another from earlier this week.

Evidently, the new system is receiving wide support and already seems to be working.

What this suggests in contrast about the American television broadcasting environment and American attitudes on media regulation, ethics, and the role of government in elevating the culture are interesting questions to ponder.